I’ve decided to write a bit about some of the political and economic questions raised in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which I love and have just finished re-reading. You may be wondering why such a topic would be appropriate for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, but you shouldn’t. If you read this blog regularly, you love politics, you love economics and you very likely love sci-fi/fantasy genre stuff. So objectors: stuff it.
Don’t worry. I’ll be careful to post spoiler tags [If you want to talk about spoilery stuff in the comments, PLEASE USE SPOILER TAGS]. This post involves no spoilers, so don’t worry (though there is a teensy risk of a spoiler tied to the maesters’ hostility to magic). Also, a terminological note: Westeros is one continent on what some call Planetos (the world has no official name) but I call it Os.
The question for this post is why Westeros (and Os more generally) seems stuck in a long-term technological stagnation. Westeros’s recorded history probably dates back to the Age of Heroes, which began after the signing of the Pact between the First Men and the Children of the Forest, and at least from the building of the Wall, 8000 years prior to the start of the books. Our recorded history only extends back around 6000 years, so Os-Civilization has at least two thousand years on us. It appears that in all that time, no civilization has reached a level of technological sophistication that heralds the beginning of modernity (though we do not know the level of technological sophistication in the Valyrian Freehold, I doubt they were on the cusp of modern industry). Westeros (and Essos) are stuck in a great stagnation of an awful sort. They can’t seem to stumble on key innovations required to reach our rate of economic development.
My theory is that the presence of magic is the cause of Os’s (but let’s focus on Westeros) great stagnation. Before I explain why, I’d like to forestall an alternative theory.
The alternative theory is that Os’s unpredictable and extremely long seasonal cycles make the accumulation of capital, human and physical, much more difficult. As any readers know, seasons can last for many years, and seem to be affected by magic. The books begin at the end of a long summer, progress through autumn, and are gearing up for winter in The Winds of Winter (to be released). There is some worry among a few characters that this winter will be long, not just because of seasonal predictions but because the return of the White Walkers may signal another Long Night. (FWIW, I predict the winter will be short, determined largely by the defeat of the Whitewalkers.)
The argument from unpredictable seasons and long winters goes a bit like this: (1) Given unpredictable seasons, it is hard for people to rationally plan how much harvest to store away, so many more people starve on a regular basis than in our world, and there is much more violent conflict during winters over remaining food, leading to more death. With fewer humans and less reliable survival, any built up capital will be almost entirely eaten away during the winter. (2) You might think humans would wise-up after a few thousand years, but perhaps due to ordinary human genetic short-sightedness, they just can’t seem to coordinate successfully enough to get out of a Malthusian trap. After all, it took us thousands of years. Maybe they haven’t stumbled on it yet.
But I don’t think this argument works for three reasons: (i) There are plenty of areas that don’t suffer horribly during winter. First, there’s the Summer Isles, the Basilisk Isles, and Sothoryos (we know next to nothing about it, save that it is covered in jungle). Closer to home we have Dorne, along with the Essos cities at a similar latitude (Lys, Volantis, Meereen) and those south of it (Astapor, Qarth, and probably Asshai). Maybe they get super cold, but probably not. So this reasoning won’t apply as forcefully to them. (ii) The people in Westeros aren’t stupid. Heck, Winterfell has hot-springs-fueled heating! So you’d think people could innovate enough to build up slowly over time. (iii) The winters may even impel people to be more innovative. The most advanced societies tend to be colder ones. If Iceland can thrive and flourish, why not the North?
Ok, so then what accounts for Westeros’s Great Stagnation? Magic. Here are three arguments.
(1) Magic Increases the Opportunity Cost of Micro-level Scientific Inquiry – the presence of magic in Os distracts a great many people from coming to believe in the power prediction and observation. Magic gives many powerful minds people shortcuts around genuine problems, like knowing the future (Mel’s flames), long-distance communication (Glass Candles) and even bringing people back to life (the Last Kiss). So the incentive to engage in boring, rote, micro-level scientific inquiry will have less of an expected payoff compared to other forms of inquiry, like magical training.
(2) Magic Increases the (Subjective) Probability that Polytheism is True: arguably science first arose in cultures that had come to the theological belief that God or the gods (usually God) operated the universe according to observable, discernible rules. Perhaps there were miracles, but they were exceedingly rare. “Natural law” thinking helped to produce a scientific culture. But in a world with real magic as opposed to fake magic, people will naturally, and in many cases rationally, attribute magic to various gods engaged in shadowy activities. And since lots of people in all cultures can use magic, they will come to believe in many different gods, which helps explain why every religion in Westeros has at least two gods (unless you count the Many-Faced God, sort of, and he’s not recognized by many). So rational polytheism likely contributes to cultural practices less conducive to science than, say, 17th century Europe. The case for deism is rather weak in Os, and so the clock-maker universe is less intellectually available.
(3) Magic Distracts and Discredits the Proto-Scientific Community: the Maesters, based at the Citadel in Oldtown, are the proto-scientific community in Westeros. They are powerful, influential healers, communicators (via ravenry), lawyers and scholars. However, they are frequently distracted from experimentation by a variety of matters. First, they despise magic, in part because it is so dangerous and unpredictable, and (probably) spend a great deal of energy trying to stop it. It is widely rumored that the Maesters probably helped to kill off the last Targaryen dragons (the last dragon died in 155AC (Aegon’s Conquest), whereas the books begin around 298AC), which are widely regarded as either enabling magic or dramatically strengthening it whenever they are alive. If the maesters are focused on creating a more orderly world, they’re less focused on understanding it. Further, and more importantly, when magic works, it discredits the authority of the maesters. Consider Maester Luwin, who repeatedly ignores good evidence of magic’s efficacy, despite having an overall good character. The natural skeptical attitude of many scientists does not pay off for the maesters as it does in our world. And so their skepticism makes them look petty and unimaginative, even the good maesters.
These three factors lower the likelihood that a robust, ongoing scientific culture will arise, and without it the critical innovations required for technological progress will not happen. Of course, science is not a sufficient condition for modern economic growth, but it is arguably a necessary one.
Importantly, the religions of Os do not seem generally hostile to commercial activity, though they also do not seem to support or celebrate it. Merchants have influence, but they are not highly regarded. With the big exception of the Iron Bank of Braavos and some other lesser financial institutions, most monetary focus is placed on aristocratic households and the revenues they collect. So while there is little to encourage a commercial culture, there is little to stop it either. And in some great cities, especially Qarth, the merchants have great economic and political power, so with adequate scientific advance, the investment necessary to accumulate capital would arguably materialize. So I don’t think the Great Stagnation in Westeros is on the commercial side.
If you’ve ready Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation, you know that one of his prescriptions to get our own economy growing faster is to improve the social standing of scientists. Tyler may not be right about our own culture (though I think he is), but he certainly seems to be right about Westeros: they need a more credible, respectable scientific community to get out of their own great stagnation.
Perhaps for this reason, the best course for the smallfolk is for the dragons to die, as this will considerably constrain the power of magic, if not eliminate it. I know, I know, dragons are awesome, but they’re also the Os equivalent of nuclear weapons, which allowed the Valyrian Freehold to maintain a brutal slave culture for thousands of years. The Targaryens (one of three surviving Valyrian families) rejected slavery, with the rest of Westeros, so perhaps a new dragonocracy wouldn’t be so bad, but the fact that the dragons keep the window of magic open, or at least widen it, they would prove a continual barrier to economic advancement.
UPDATE: Ryan M raises an additional argument in the comments that I had not seen. Basically, one impetus for innovation is to increase military power. But given the magical power derived from dragons (dragons, dragonriders and wildfire, and potentially the ability to create advanced steel), the need for military innovation among the power elites was significantly weakened. Any of these technologies would allow the one who holds the technology to become the dominant power. If you have all of these powers, then you have little incentive to innovate beyond this. You can already extract all the economic rents you wants from your vassals and subjects.